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Obama’s Crisis of Competence

Earlier in the week I wrote about a Defense Department nominee that Republicans were questioning over whether the administration knew of Russian treaty violations while it was pushing the Senate to ratify New START. But that nominee, Brian McKeon, turned out not to have been the subject of controversy at the ensuing committee hearing. Instead, it was two of his fellow nominees who clashed with John McCain and subsequently had their nominations put on hold.

The fireworks between McCain and Bob Work, nominated to be deputy defense secretary, and Christine Wormuth, nominated to be under secretary for defense policy, were in some sense inevitable. McCain was already losing patience with the constant stream of Obama nominees who fell into one of two categories: either they were ambassadorial posts given to staggeringly uninformed big-money donors or they were–like Work and Wormuth, and higher-ranking nominees before them such as Chuck Hagel–given important defense policy-related nominations but struggled to answer questions about that subject.

The Washington Times recounts this particular committee hearing, in which the two apparently “failed to provide adequate responses to questions” McCain asked them:

At one point, Mr. McCain focused his attention Mr. Work’s lack of familiarity with a critical 2013 government report that outlined cost issues associated with the Littoral Combat Ship.

Recent years have seen the ship experience a series of cost overruns, and Mr. McCain expressed shock when Mr. Work indicated that he had not seen the report.

The Senator then questioned Mr. Work’s qualifications to be Deputy Defense Secretary. “You haven’t read it? I’m stunned that you haven’t,” Mr. McCain scoffed.

Mr. McCain’s frustration toward Ms. Wormuth stemmed from a separate exchange in which the senator accused her of ducking his request for additional information on al Qaeda.

The confirmation hearing for Hagel was an unmitigated disaster, but the concern appears to be that Hagel was only the beginning. McCain has obvious disagreements with the president on policy, but the recent global emergencies have cast doubt on the process that leads to policy in this administration. The confused, ad hoc nature of crisis response in the Obama White House makes it all the more important that Hagel at least have competent, knowledgeable employees he can lean on. Someone’s got to steer the ship, in other words.

On the other side of this nominating circus are the ambassadors. I wrote here about the Obama donor tapped to be ambassador to Norway who didn’t know anything about Norway and the Hungarian ambassador who couldn’t name America’s strategic interests in Hungary, who were joined in their ranks by the ambassador to Argentina who had never been to Argentina (but what a perfect reason to visit!).

And on that issue, McCain wasn’t the only one fed up. Olivier Knox reported earlier this week that the American Foreign Service Association, which represents some 31,000 current and former diplomats, was so alarmed by President Obama’s envoy fire sale that they went so far as to write an embarrassingly elementary how-to guide for Obama:

A good nominee ideally “has experience in or with the host country or other suitable international experience, and has knowledge of the host country culture and language or of other foreign cultures or languages,” AFSA said in its six-page report.

“The actions and words of an ambassador have consequences for U.S. national security and interests far beyond the individual country or organization to which he or she is accredited,” AFSA said. “It is essential, therefore, that ambassadors chosen to represent the president and lead our diplomatic missions possess the attributes, experience and skills to do so successfully.”

The report landed at a time when a handful of Obama’s nominees — some of them seemingly picked for no reason other than to reward them for scooping up vast piles of re-election campaign cash — have raised eyebrows in Congress.

AFSA tried to be as–forgive me–diplomatic as possible, by claiming they weren’t writing this guide for Obama personally, just for anyone who happens to be president and who may be tempted to auction off diplomatic postings. McCain may have seemed to lose his temper, but this instruction manual is far more insulting: its language is downright condescending.

It’s also more evidence that the Chuck Hagels aren’t exceptions; they’re just high-profile enough to garner the publicity. When the light is shined on other nominees, it’s clear this White House neither takes foreign affairs especially seriously nor has the presence of mind to pretend it does.


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